Immigrant puts the right foot forward
Aunt Phil's Trunk
October 1, 2021 | View PDF
One of Anchorage's now-closed department stores can trace its roots to the Gold Rush days of the Klondike when a young Swede hunkered down with pick and ax and chipped out a small fortune.
John W. Nordstrom arrived in New York City from his native Sweden in 1887. With $5 in his pocket, and not a lick of English on his tongue, the 16-year-old made his way to Michigan where he labored in an iron mine. He eventually migrated to the West Coast.
While making $1.50 a day as a logger and sawmill hand in the Puget Sound, he read in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that gold had been found in Alaska. Like thousands of others, he headed to the Klondike.
Nordstrom landed first at Skagway and then crossed the infamous Chilkoot Pass. The young immigrant then floated the Yukon River and landed in Dawson in 1897.
He laid claim to a promising piece of land, and for the next couple of years, worked in the gold fields with some success. After selling his gold claim, Nordstrom traveled back to Seattle, via the newly completed White Pass and Yukon Railroad to Skagway, with a nest egg of $13,000.
The young gold miner attended business school, spent $2,500 to build two rental houses on Capitol Hill and married Hilda Carlson in 1900. He then joined a shoemaker friend, Carl Wallin, in a new shoe store venture.
The men opened Wallin & Nordstrom on Fourth and Pike streets, next door to Wallin's shoe repair shop, in 1901. It flourished during the next 20 years, because both Wallin and Nordstrom believed in offering exceptional value, quality, selection and service to their customers. That philosophy proved so successful that the men opened a second store in the University District in 1923.
Sons Everett and Elmer took over the business after John retired in 1928. They bought Wallin's interest the next year. Son Lloyd joined the company in 1933. The second-generation Nordstroms developed the business into the largest independent shoe chain in the United States, and the downtown Seattle store became the largest shoe store in the nation.
The company started expanding into other areas of merchandise in the 1960s when third-generation Nordstroms took over. It bought Best's Apparel, a high-quality women's clothing store, and then began purchasing clothing outlets and opening stores all over the country. The company is now one of the largest department store chains in America.
To set it apart, the corporate culture of the company emphasized customer service. Even today, new employees are told they'll never be criticized for doing too much for a customer, only too little.
The company went public in 1971 and changed its name to Nordstrom Inc. By 1975 it was in Alaska and had moved into the competitive California market by 1978. The first store on the East Coast opened in 1988 in Virginia.
Beginning with John Nordstrom, who died in 1963 at the age of 92, family members have always been involved in the company. Fourth generation Nordstroms were co-presidents until 2020, when Erik Nordstrom became the sole CEO.
And although the finest department store in Alaska closed its Anchorage doors in September 2019, the town still enjoys a Nordstrom Rack in the Midtown Mall.
This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five, are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com and Amazon.com.